by Justin Williams
The baby’s cries echoed through the house as the sun set, filling the room with joy and fear. A new life had come to New Century and the village found itself off balance once more.
Ethan gazed out the nursery window at the wilted fields surrounding the village, pushing away worry. The sunset painted the ever-present haze in soft strokes of pink and violet.
In the corner of the room, Anna picked up their new addition and rocked his cries away, her face gentle and soft as she sang the lullaby her mother once sang to her.
Cry no more, my little child
Summer is warm and the winter’s mild
The rains’ll come soon and we’ll all be fed
No more tears will then be shed
Cry no more, dear little one
The clouds in the sky will break the sun
The rains’ll come soon and we’ll all be fed
No more sick and no more dead
Ethan waited while she sang, then said, “He’s a handsome boy. Hard to believe it’s been almost a month already. We’ve been blessed more than I could have dreamed.”
“Some don’t see it that way,” Anna whispered as she eased the sleeping baby into his bassinet. “Another mouth to feed. That’s all they see.”
She ran her hand across the baby’s cheek. Anna and Ethan walked out, leaving the little one to rest, peacefully.
“I hate this drought,” she said when they were halfway down the stairs. “Why can’t the Council do something to help instead of—”
Ethan interrupted. “The Council of Elders does its best with what we have. Everyone must make sacrifices.”
“Sacrifices?” she said, the glistening stream of tears now visible along her cheeks. “Going to bed hungry is a sacrifice, Ethan. This is far more.”
Ethan blinked back tears of his own. He sat down at the dining room table. Anna stayed standing.
“I know,” Ethan said. “But it must be done. The balance sustains us.”
“Fortune City dropped the tradition and they’re fine. I’ve heard the same of Evergreen.”
“Peddler rumors,” said Ethan. “And where are those peddlers now? Dead. Like the villagers they bragged on.”
“Who would you choose, then?” Anna pushed aside the single faded-green curtain struggling to cover the dining room window. Fading sunlight drifted in, catching dust motes floating like ghosts.
Ethan rubbed at the scar on his cheek, the only evidence of a rebellious youth long buried. “Corbin.”
“Your own father?”
“He’s lived a long life.”
Anna stared out toward the half-charred trees crowded just beyond the sun-scorched fields. “If only…” she said. Then, “Never mind. Let’s just eat. Tomorrow I’ll be too sick for it, even if I can.”
Ethan said nothing. Talking wouldn’t change a thing. He’d recite village tradition; she’d argue against. But tradition was the only thing as dependable as the drought.
Anna left the room.
Desperate beams of fading sunlight clung to the cracked wooden table like long and crooked fingers. Their grasp slipped away as Ethan lit the lantern. He sat in silence, examining his gaunt hand as he flexed and stretched it in the lamplight. He wondered whom the Council would select. Before he could decide, the sweet scent of cake captured his attention, and stole him away to join his wife in the kitchen.
“I wondered what you were planning with those extra eggs,” he said.
“I know. It’s a waste.” Anna pulled open the oven door, rotating the cake and letting loose a burst of heat from the coals. “I just wanted to celebrate, as a family, before—”
Ethan stopped her. “It should be a celebration.”
Anna’s face cracked into a wan smile, then she cried. Ethan held her like he might never hold her again.
She held him just as tight.
The snap of the front screen slamming shut cut through the house. Ethan didn’t have to look to know it was his father. Corbin walked with a hunched limp that drummed an unsteady and distinct beat across the oak floors, a gift from a life of digging graves.
“One’d think you were proud for what you done,” said Corbin, glaring at the couple.
“Easy, Father,” said Ethan. “The baby is a blessing from God, nothing less. We followed all the traditions and—.”
“Blessing?” Corbin scoffed. “I lost your mother for your last blessing. Now we’re choosin’ again.”
Corbin threw his shovel to the floor, fresh bits of grave-dirt bursting from its blade. “Saw Elder Winters on the road,” he said. “Told him who I’d choose. Someone who deserves it this time.”
Corbin left the room in a wake of slammed doors, shaking the house with his anger.
“Does he have to bring that thing inside?” Anna asked. “I don’t want it in here. I want to celebrate life tonight. Not death.”
“It’s a necessary job,” Ethan said. “He doesn’t like it either, but it has to be done.” He picked up the shovel and walked it to the front door, out of sight. His two older children chased fireflies in the twilight, and for a moment, Ethan just watched them. Then he smiled, and went back to his wife.
He caressed her hand. “How’s the cake?”
Anna pulled a pan from the oven, sending the sweet scent of sugar through the kitchen. Laughter burst through the screen door. The children followed.
“Cake!” Phillip flew through the house like a dust storm, right into the stone wall that was his mother. He craned his neck to look around her.
“Clean your hands,” Anna said. She lifted his chin. “And your face.”
“Just a bite, Ma? Please?”
“Clean.” Her face was frozen.
Phillip grabbed a rag from the counter.
Anna drizzled crossing streams of syrup along the cooling cake and stepped back to admire her effort. She didn’t have much to work with, but she made do just fine tonight.
“I smelled it outside,” said Phillip, rubbing the dry cloth between his fingers, “Sarah said I was imagining things.”
“Let’s see those hands,” said Anna.
Phillip displayed his hands dutifully. “All clean,” he said, almost bragging.
“Alright, then.” Anna cut a slice. Phillip tore it from her hand.
“Mrs. Ward’s gonna have a baby soon, too,” Phillip said through a mouthful of a bite. “Bet she won’t have cake like this, though.”
Sarah walked in, already clean, wearing a dress that matched the dining room curtain. “It smells wonderful,” she said, taking a slice. “We should have a new baby every day.”
Ethan laughed uneasily. “I think Phillip agrees.”
Phillip crammed in another bite, smiling. “So,” he mumbled, his mouth half full, “did you choose a name?”
Ethan choked. Anna fled the room.
“What’s wrong?” Phillip asked.
“Your mother’s just tired,” said Ethan. “We’ll name the baby when he’s a month old. It’s important to honor the traditions.” He handed Phillip another slice and licked the sticky remnants of syrup from his fingers. “How was school?”
“Marty Roberts said it’s gonna rain soon,” Phillip said, the words rushing out just before the next bite could stop them. He continued, mumbling, “Said he saw some clouds on the horizon.”
“Probably a dust storm,” said Ethan. “I’ve heard those rumors plenty of times. Best not to get your hopes up.”
“Nobody thought a family’d have three kids, either,” Phillip said. “Grandma said I’d never even get a sister, but I did.” He started to take a bite, but held back. “Just wish she could’ve met her.”
“Me, too, son.”
Later, Ethan started a fire as the cool of night settled in. The light of the flames danced along the cracked plaster walls. He tried to lose himself in a book, to escape the troubles the next morning brought, but Anna allowed him no such relief.
“You have to do something,” she said. “Elder Winters respects you.”
“There’s nothing I can do. The reserves provide for a hundred people, may the balance sustain.”
“It doesn’t have to be like this. The other villages—”
“Those villages will die!” Ethan slammed his book shut. “Probably already have. When was the last time you heard anything about them? When was the last time a peddler even passed through?”
“I don’t care. I want to leave. We have to try.”
“There’s no leaving, Anna. There’s nothing out there but desert and death. You have to understand.”
“I don’t understand. And I don’t want to.” Anna looked out the window. Night or day, there was a darkness that never left. “What about the children?”
“The children will recover. They have a new brother to cheer them up.”
“What if the Elders choose one of them?”
Ethan shifted in his chair. “They wouldn’t.”
“They could.” Anna’s voice cracked.
“They’ve chosen only one child in twenty years. And he was—” The words dried his mouth.
“But they have done it, and there’s no tradition stopping them from doing it again. We have three children, Ethan. No other family has more than one, and most don’t have that. They were already jealous of Sarah. Imagine what they’re saying now.”
“They wouldn’t, Anna.” He hoped to convince himself, as well.
Ethan hid his shaking hands in the folds of his crossed arms. Anna was right. He’d heard the Elder’s wives accusing Anna of flaunting her fertility, always in a whisper of course, but a whisper loud enough to catch his ear. Choosing one of the children would appease them.
“What about me?” Anna twisted the knife, and Ethan felt it jerk up and tear through his heart. “Even if they spare the children, they could easily choose me. You know they hate me, Ethan. I can feel the way they look at me. They blame it on me, that God gave us these children and left them with none.”
“And they could choose me,” Ethan said, trying to shift her focus. “You know I don’t want this, but it’s the way its done. The way it’s always been done.”
“It’s a tradition that condemns us all to death.” Her voice echoed against the bare walls.
Ethan tried to quiet her. “I’m sure they’ll choose Corbin. He’s not long for this world anyway. That’s why they chose my mother when Sarah was born.”
“’No man should dig his own grave.’ Isn’t that what they say?”
“An old saying, not a tradition. They’ve named diggers before, probably as many times as they’ve chosen a child.”
“But you know they won’t.”
Anna hugged herself and turned away. Ethan poked at the fire, searching for an answer in its flames, and finding none. Finally, they both retreated to bed.
Anna lay quietly until she heard Ethan’s soft and even snoring. She slid from bed and opened the door, turning the knob carefully to ensure its silence. Then she tiptoed through the hall, careful of the creaks she knew lay hidden in the wooden floor, and slipped into the children’s room.
“Phillip,” she whispered, giving the boy a gentle shake. “Wake up, dear.”
“Ma? What’s wrong?” He yawned out the words.
“We’re going for a little walk. The stars are so bright tonight. I don’t want to miss it. Put on your shoes while I get your sister.”
“What about my clothes?”
“We’ll go in our pajamas. It’ll be fun.” She forced a smile.
Anna gave Sarah the same gentle shake, then moved on to the bassinet. She swaddled the baby in his thickest blanket. She’d still have to hold him tight to keep him warm enough. The bitter claws of winter already grasped at the world.
Anna didn’t know how long their journey would be. She had only the vaguest idea where to find the nearest village, lost somewhere in a childhood memory of stories told by peddlers who no longer came. And Ethan could be right, was probably right, was usually right. The towns might be gone. But she had to try, even if he refused.
She pulled the coats from the hall closet and led her children down the stairs, holding the baby tightly in one arm and hugging the wall to keep the steps from groaning.
Then she froze, holding out her free hand to stop the children behind her.
Corbin rocked in his chair beside the front door.
The embers of the dying fire cast shadows against the wall, leaving Corbin looking like a three-headed beast. A shotgun lay across his lap.
“And where might you be headin’ at this hour?” he asked.
“The stars are out tonight, Corbin. I wanted to show the children the beauty of the world.”
“They’ll have to do without.” He pulled back the slide on his shotgun with a threatening snap of metal. “Just head on back to bed.”
“We want to see the stars, Grandpa,” said Phillip.
“Sorry, boy. The dust’s rolled in, covered everything up. Maybe tomorrow.”
“We’ll just see for ourselves,” said Anna.
“It’s dangerous out there,” he said. “Can’t see much with the dust, and the wolves ain’t so civil as we are.” He waved his gun toward the children. “Hate to see anything happen to the young’ns.”
She glared at him, wishing she could just reach the door. But she wasn’t angry with him. He was exactly the devil she knew him to be. She was angry with herself, angry for not being able to defend her children.
As she turned and ushered the children back to their beds, she heard the taunting squeal of the wooden rocker. The old dog would guard his traditions all night.
When Ethan woke, the moon hung just above the horizon. He thought he’d heard something, his wife shouting maybe, but the sound he suspected had woke him was already fading like a dream. He checked, just in case, and found Anna there in bed next to him. Her breathing was rushed. A bad dream, he thought.
“Anna?” he whispered.
Corbin would be the sensible choice, but as much as he wanted to believe it, Anna was right. Forcing a man to dig his own grave was one step too far. But Anna was at risk. The drought had left more than just fields barren, and Anna had given him three beautiful children. He knew they might choose her, if only out of their dark jealousy.
Ethan slipped out of bed and to the window. The village slept, shrouded in dust and darkness.
A thought flashed in his mind like heat lightning.
He could volunteer.
Untraditional, maybe, but there was no rule against it. And Phillip had grown into a fine young man. He could help Anna care for the others, and maybe the loss would ease the village sentiment against her.
The morning bells derailed his thoughts, and for the first time he considered their purpose, calling the faithful to pray. What good is prayer when you’re already in Hell?
Ethan was already on his way downstairs when he heard the shifting blankets and creaking beds of his family waking. Corbin slept in the rocker, balanced uneasily against the door. Had Anna tried to leave? He wouldn’t have blamed her.
Ethan woke the old man with a kick and Corbin jerked to stop himself from falling.
“Planning to kill us yourself and be done with it?”
Corbin fought a yawn, unsuccessfully. “We’ve got traditions to uphold,” he said. “You know as well as I.”
“And what about Tabitha Ward? She’s with child. Are you heading to kill her next?”
“Her first child,” said Corbin. “and we’ll do that choosing when it’s time. It was your second took away my Ruthie.”
“You talk like I didn’t lose a mother as well. But she was already dying. If not for us, for someone else.”
“And now you’ve got a third,” said Corbin. “A father should lead his family to God, Ethan. You’re leading them to Hell.”
“I lead my family just fine,” Ethan said, and though he could hide his doubt from Corbin, he couldn’t hide it from himself. “We followed all the traditions.”
“And you’ll follow this one, too. No matter the cost.” Corbin stood, his crooked knuckles ghost-white as he gripped his shotgun.
The children’s voices drifted down from upstairs.
“I have a grave to dig,” said Corbin. He propped the shotgun against the corner and grabbed his shovel. “Wonder how big a hole I need.”
“Get out.” Ethan grabbed the gun. “Now.”
The door slammed.
Ethan heard the stairs creak behind him. Anna stepped down, then Phillip. Sarah followed, cradling the baby in her arms. Ethan’s eyes watered. He never wanted to look away.
“Morning, Pa,” said Phillip. “Grandpa leaving already?”
“He is.” Ethan leaned the gun back against the wall. “He’s got some work to finish.”
“I’ll whip up some oatmeal,” said Anna, turning to the kitchen.
Sarah followed, tickling the baby along the way.
Ethan called Phillip aside. “I need a hand with the wagon before we eat,” he said. “I noticed a few loose spokes.”
Ethan walked with his son in the crisp morning air. The morning songbirds had already moved on, chased away by crows scavenging for breakfast.
“The spokes are good and tight,” said Phillip as they came to the wagon. “I just oiled the wheels last week.”
“I know,” Ethan admitted. “There’s something else. Something I need to tell you.” He struggled for the next words.
Phillip toed circles in the dirt.
Finally, Ethan spoke. “The Council of Elders has a rule about having children, about keeping balance in our village.”
“May the balance sustain ‘til God gives us rain,” recited Phillip.
“Right. For as long as the drought, we’ve kept going with our stored supplies backing up what little we could manage to grow. All of that can only support a hundred of us, no more. So, when a baby is born—” Ethan hesitated.
“Like whenever there’s a new baby, someone dies?”
Ethan’s eyes opened wide. Phillip had already made the connection. He’d make a good leader for the family. Better than Ethan himself.
“Yes,” said Ethan. “Only it’s not just that someone dies, it’s how. Most of the time, the Elders choose who dies. It’s seldom coincidence.”
“So they kill someone? Wouldn’t that be wrong?”
“Not in their eyes,” said Ethan. He looked away. “And not in mine… until now. This morning, the Council will choose someone to be killed to make room for our baby.”
Ethan saw the gears turning behind Phillip’s eyes. And the tears beginning to pool within them.
“So, when Sarah was born and Grandma—”
“She was old and sick, but yes, the Council sped things up.”
“And Johnny? When his sister was born? Oh God,” Phillip’s face went pale. “Did they kill him because of his legs? He was my best friend, Pa! They, they just got rid of him?”
“I’m sorry, son. It’s how the village has survived so long. I wish none of us were ever born here.”
Phillip wiped his tears on his sleeve. Then he looked up. “Who died for me?”
Ethan hesitated. “Later. We’re running out of time. The Elders will choose someone from our family today.”
“We can fight back.” Phillip kicked a rock against the wagon, the crack of its impact echoing through the still-silent village. “They can’t take any of us.”
“They’ll take one,” said Ethan, “or they’ll take us all.”
“Then we’ll die together as a family.”
“Would you have your mother dead? Sarah? The baby?”
Phillip looked at his feet. “Of course not.”
“There is a sacrifice to be made, though. I need your help.”
“Don’t go to school. Take Sarah and the baby into the forest instead. Find the old blacktop. It’s covered in dirt and dust, I’m sure, but it’s there. Your mom and I will be at the council meeting. Grandpa will be there, too. Wait in the forest until we come for you. We can start a new life somewhere far from New Century.” Ethan paused. “And take the shotgun. Just in case.”
“We’ll be there. I’ll protect them.”
“You’re a good boy,” said Ethan. “A good man.”
Pride beamed across Phillip’s tear-stained face as the two walked back to the house. Ethan rested his hand on Phillip’s shoulder. Breakfast would be short-lived.
Ethan squeezed his wife’s hand. They walked into the cemetery and joined the semi-circle of villagers forming before the gray stone table where the seven Elder’s conferred, each wearing a shirt the color of bleached bone.
Corbin cleared the last scoops of dirt from the new grave just beyond the table. He stabbed the blade of his shovel into the pile of dry earth and, with a nod to Elder Winters as he passed the Council, he came to stand beside Ethan.
As was tradition, Ethan led his wife and father to the center of the crowd to face the Council alone. There had been exceptions through the years but most often, when a choice had to be made, it came from the growing family. It was their gain, and so would be their loss. May the balance sustain.
The mumbled words of the crowd were impossible to understand, but Ethan knew what they were saying. He’d been in their shoes too many times. Some sympathized, remembering their own losses. Others wagered extra rations on the Council’s choice. Nobody ever bragged of winning.
Ethan watched as the Elders wrote their choices on yellowed scraps of paper that threatened to turn to dust. They passed their choices to Elder Winters, seated in the center, who tallied the votes.
Ethan scanned the faces of the crowd as the horrible reality clenched his gut. A few were missing, Tabitha and her husband, and Miranda the midwife. But most were there, watching, their eyes seeming to stare in Anna’s direction, each turning away just as Ethan’s gaze found theirs.
She’s already dead in their eyes.
Elder Winters’ lips mouthed the words—six, seven—as he counted the votes. He cleared his throat, and rose from his chair.
“By the laws and traditions of New Century, it is the duty of the Council of Elders to choose a citizen for this honorable sacrifice. May the balance sustain ‘til God gives us rain.”
“May the balance sustain.” The crowd repeated in unison.
Elder Winters looked up from the paper, first at Ethan, then at Anna.
“Let’s get on with it already,” Corbin shouted. “We all know it should be—”
Ethan cut the old man’s words short with his fist. He let loose a decade of festering anger in one punch, the loss of his mother, and the years of blame and guilt that came after, all packed as tightly as his fingers.
Corbin stumbled back. The crowd let out a unified gasp and seemed to freeze in surprise.
“Go,” Ethan whispered to Anna. “To the old blacktop. The kids are waiting.”
Anna’s eyes shot wide. “Go!” Ethan shoved her away. She stumbled into the stunned crowd, disappearing from sight.
Corbin gathered his footing and swung back, missed and stumbled toward the open grave. Ethan pushed him in.
“You worthless bastard,” Corbin said from six feet down. “You killed your mother. Now your father?”
Ethan’s rage flared as he kicked dirt at the old man’s face. “You’re no father.”
The crowd broke free from their shock. “Murderer!” shouted a voice. Then another: “Get him!”
Ethan reached for the shovel, but felt his body jerked back.
Elder Winters stood at the table. “Tie him up,” he snapped. “And get Corbin out of that hole.”
Ethan felt the burn of the rope as two men pulled it tight around his wrists.
“Nobody has to die!” he shouted. “We can—“
“The Council has made its decision.” Elder Winters crushed the paper in his hand. Yellow dust fell from its edges. “For the safety of our village, the Council has no choice but to choose Ethan Graber to sustain the balance of New Century.”
The crowd chanted in unison, “May the balance sustain ‘til God gives us rain.”
Ethan trembled as he fought to get away. The crowd continued their chant, the rhythm marred by calls for his death. Corbin slumped beside the Council table and, just before his face disappeared into his hands, Ethan caught the shining glimmer of tears. Wasted water, he thought.
Ethan pulled an arm free from the ropes and swung his fist at his captors. More came. With more ropes. And finally Ethan could no longer move.
Then the world went black around him. Only the Elders remained.
“Ethan Graber, New Century will live on because of your sacrifice,” Elder Winters said, his words cold and monotonous from years of reciting the same script. “It is an honor for you to lay down your life to sustain the balance.”
“The killing has to stop.” Ethan pleaded with the Council. “We’re nothing but murd—”
Ethan’s captors shoved a rag into his mouth. They dragged him to the open grave.
“Your selfless act will be remembered through the generations,” said Elder Winters.
The Elder went on, but Ethan was looking past him, past the murderous Council and the slowly dying crowd and into the dead trees beyond. Anna stood with the children, watching him. Run, he thought. He wished he could yell to her. He jerked his head to the side. Run!
His family fled. He’d led them, finally, away from Hell. They would make it, he knew. The village would believe them dead and be satisfied with their belief. Fewer mouths to feed. They lacked Anna’s hope. Ethan had felt the same. Not anymore.
Several men grabbed Ethan and cast him into the grave. He fell on his back, six feet down onto dirt that felt like stone. His shoulder popped from its socked and Ethan screamed a muffled scream.
Ethan strained to get up, but the knots pulled tighter.
Dirt rained down, the only thing New Century had in abundance. Each villager threw a handful, one by one, chanting the traditional words: “May the balance sustain ‘til God gives us rain.”
Ethan tried to meet their eyes, but none dared look down. He knew how they felt, the relief it wasn’t one of their own in the grave. He had felt the same with every Balancing. Every fistful of dirt held their jealousy, their hunger, their sadness, all of it cast upon Ethan to bear.
The weight of the dirt grew heavier. Ethan’s struggles grew weaker. He pushed the rag out with his tongue, tried to plead for his life, but crumbled earth filled his mouth before he could get a word out.
His breathing quickened as panic took hold, each inhalation bringing in more dirt than air. The raining soil stung his eyes as he fought to keep them open. Above him, Elder Winters stood at the grave’s edge.
“It didn’t have to be like this, you fool,” he said, filling the grave with his shadow.
The Elder opened his hand above the grave. It held paper, not dirt.
The crumbling, yellowed ball fell beside Ethan’s face.
There, in the brief moment before the next handful of dirt buried the evidence, he saw the Council’s decision. He could only see the first three letters, but they were enough: Cor—
As the dirt rained down, the first cries of another new blessing tore along the biting morning air and echoed down the cracked-earth walls of Ethan’s grave.